Staring down the firefighter 'c-word'

Cancer is that thing that happens to the other firefighter, until it happens to you

I took a strange journey over the past few months. I am sharing this personal debacle in hopes that my story will raise awareness and inspire action.

Last summer during a family vacation, my wife noticed a spot on my right ear lobe. I looked and only noticed a mole of some sorts and dismissed her silly observation. A month or two later she mentioned it again. I relented and visited a dermatologist.

The skin doc looked at it and very nonchalantly took a sample with a promise of a follow up phone call if there was an issue.

To be honest, I completely forgot about it — never gave it another thought. Imagine my surprise a couple weeks later when my wireless phone rang with a call from the doctor. I was supervising a group outing to the local grocery store for the day's feed.

The nurse on the other end told me she had some very bad news. Naturally, I assumed the co-pay had gone up. Nope. The biopsy was bad.

The nurse said I had an aggressive form of melanoma and could I come to the cancer hospital today. I told her no not unless it was on fire but I would be there tomorrow. I hung up and pondered the news I had just received.

Pinch me
Every one of us in this business has thought of the end results of a lifetime of carcinogens. You just do. But in true fashion, I never believed it would happen.

I met my new doctor and her team of assistants. They were all very nice and proceeded to explain what was going to happen.

I would require surgery and partial removal of part of my lower ear and lobe. My former ear would undergo a biopsy and depending on the results I might need chemo and lymph node removal.

Whoa. This was not happening. Oh, but it was.

I elected to have the surgery under local painkiller only. My doctor wasn't too crazy about the idea, but I don't trust anesthesiologists, which is okay because anesthesiologists don't trust firefighters. She even called in the days before the surgery to confirm I wanted to go it awake.

Eyes wide open
The surgeon asked me if I was comfortable, which I was. She then called for the scalpel.

It just got real.

She began cutting, which strangely I could hear. Some cartilage had to be cut and that required a bit of sawing. That was a bit odd.

Even stranger, the doctor began placing chunks of the body part formerly known as my ear into containers for analysis. They were passing this stuff back and forth in front of me.

Next they began cauterizing the area with some contraption that required me to be grounded.

During this process, I had my eyes focused on a fluorescent light above me, I began to notice smoke in the lights. I pointed this out being the consummate, ever-alert fire professional.

The staff reassured me that there was no fire; the smoke was coming from me. Well, okay then that made me feel a lot better.

The cancer problem
I ended up being off for the Christmas holidays for the first time in years. My release said I couldn't pick up anything heavier than 10 pounds for a couple of weeks. My leather helmet weighs more than that.

In the end, my surgery biopsy came back good. I am done and very relieved.

My adventure was minor compared to what some have been or are going through. Unchecked, my spot could have turned into a life-threatening condition. Fortunately, my spousal unit and her usual powers of observation — and persuasion — saved me.

Cancer is a major problem in our world. There are all kinds of statistics out there on firefighters and cancer. I'm not a doctor but early detection is a must. I have to visit the dermatologist regularly now.

I'm hoping they give me a parking space.

Plethora of understanding
There is a plethora (that's an El Guapo reference) of assistance available to firefighters. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is active in the cancer world. I read a paper on their site about a NIOSH study that took a combined population of 30,000 firefighters from three major cities and concluded firefighters have a higher cancer risk than the U.S. population as a whole.

The site also had a quote from Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn stating every three weeks a Boston firefighter, either retired or active, receives a cancer diagnosis. That is a sobering thought.

There is also the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Their mission is to assist firefighters and their families after a cancer diagnosis is received. Mentoring assistance as well as other kinds of help is also available.

Of course IAFF has done a lot of research and has a lot of information on cancer. The IAFF has worked hard on presumptive cancer legislation, which benefits all of us.

I'm only scratching the surface of what is available to all of us.

There is plenty of information out there and help, but we have to do our part too. My good buddy Tiger Schmittendorf, the deputy fire coordinator of fire services in Erie County, N.Y. likes to says in his writings, "Wear your mask, save your [male reproductive organ]."

I'm good, but please be mindful of the problem and those who have much more serious situations to deal with. Who puts sun block on their ears anyway?

Let me hear from you.  

About the author

Will Wyatt, who is originally from New Orleans, has been in the fire service for about 30 years. Will is a captain at the Village Fire Department in the Houston area. Will also works part time at another fire department and part time at a 911 emergency medical service. He has held numerous ranks with fire departments in the Houston area including full time training officer, fire marshal and deputy chief. Will holds a master fire fighter certification with the State of Texas, an instructor certification, pump operator certification, and an associate degree from Houston Community College. Recently will authored a book on the fire service entitled, "And a Paycheck, Too!" Check out an excerpt here and follow him on Twitter. Contact Will at

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